A procedural technicality sent a death row inmate convicted of murdering, hanging and dismembering a mentally handicapped man back to court this week so he could once again be sentenced to die by lethal injection at the hands of the state of Alabama.
On Aug. 6, retired Circuit Judge Charlie Graddick returned to the bench as a specially appointed judge to clarify what he was thinking when he sentenced Dennis Morgan Hicks to die in 2016 for killing, hanging, dismembering and disemboweling 23-year-old Joshua Duncan.
The details of the crime, which occurred in 2011, are important to understanding why the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the case back to the Mobile County Circuit Court last month during an appeals process led by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).
According to testimony from the 2016 trial, Hicks met Duncan through the church he attended with his grandmother, Dorothy Hudson. Witnesses indicated that Hicks performed handyman work for the church and at various times for Hudson.
At some point, Hicks asked if Duncan could help him out with a few jobs, and family members told Lagniappe they believe it was during one of those jobs that Hicks “brainwashed” Duncan, who they say was 23 years old but had the mental capacity of someone much younger.
Evidence showed that, after Duncan began living and working with Hicks, the pair tried to change the address where Duncan’s social security check was sent and also tried to sell a utility trailer that belonged to Hudson. Eventually, Duncan was staying with Hicks, and on the night he was killed, the pair was staying at the home of Hicks’ stepsister, Regina Norris, and her children.
The boys, who would have been 5 and 4 years old at the time, told police Duncan and Hicks got into an altercation on Sept. 5, 2011, which escalated quickly. They also testified to witnessing at least some part of the grisly scene prosecutors say unfolded next.
“Hicks cut Duncan and hung him with a chain from a tree in the backyard. The boys both stated that Hicks cut off Duncan’s head, hands, legs and feet, and cut out his stomach and eyes,” the July 12 ruling reads. “The evidence established that Duncan was either brutally beaten to death and then dismembered by Hicks, or was brutally beaten and dismembered while still alive.”
Days later, Duncan’s dismembered body was found by a city worker in a trash dump.
While the appeal filed by EJI on Hicks’ behalf raised a number of issues, the 130-page ruling handed down from the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in July upheld his conviction. His death sentence was upheld, too, but was remanded back to the Circuit Court for clarification.
In capital cases, the jury and judge weigh aggravating and mitigating factors when determining whether someone should be put to death for a crime — the aggrovators being reasons why they should and the mitigators being reasons why they should not.
There were three aggravators considered as part of Hicks’ sentencing. He killed Duncan while still technically serving a life sentence for a double homicide in Mississippi that he had been previously paroled for. That prior crime constituted two of his aggravating factors.
The third aggravator was that the crime was considered “heinous, atrocious and cruel.”
Back in 2016, Graddick’s sentence noted the crime met that definition under the law because it was “a conscienceless or pitiless homicide” that was “unnecessarily torturous” to Duncan and because it was committed in front of two small children.
On appeal, EJI said the presence of the children shouldn’t have been considered, and ultimately, the appeals court agreed. Graddick, who has since retired from the bench, was specially appointed by the Presiding Circuit Judge John Lockett in order to clarify the ruling.
In the end, the three-year appeals process led to a hearing that lasted less than 20 minutes.
Graddick drafted a new sentencing order that omitted the children when establishing why the crime was “heinous, atrocious and cruel” and then read the 16-page document into the record in its entirety out of an abundance of caution and to avoid the possibility of any future issues.
He then, for a second time, sentenced Hicks to die by lethal injection.
“There can be only one penalty, and that is the penalty of death,” Graddick said. “Nothing Dennis Hicks has presented in mitigation outweighs his responsibility for this heinous act or the value of what he has stripped away from Joshua Duncan’s family.”
Rachel Judge, an EJI attorney, raised additional concerns with the new sentencing order, but Graddick entered it anyway. Hicks was also allowed to address the court briefly — time he used to maintain his innocence, attack his former attorneys and accuse prosecutors of misconduct.
“Not only was there no crime, no killing, I am 100 percent innocent. How can you sentence me to death over something with so many questions surrounding it?” he said. “God bless, y’all. I love y’all, but I despise and hate y’all’s dirty practices.”
After the hearing, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Wright said she was happy the conviction and sentence were upheld and said she’s hopeful the case can be put to rest and Duncan’s family can find closure. Hicks, however, suggested he would raise future challenges to his conviction.
According to its own website, EJI is committed to ending both “mass incarceration” and “excessive punishment” in the criminal justice system, and in recent years, the organization has brought multiple successful appeals on behalf of death row inmates from Mobile County.
In fact, since 2016, the Mobile County District Attorney’s office has had to retry a capital case every year because of efforts led by EJI. In each of those cases, the defendant was reconvicted, but all three dodged previous death sentences and were instead sentenced to life without parole.
Lagniappe reached out to attorneys and press contacts for EJI seeking comment about the organization’s involvement in Hicks’ appeal and resentencing but did not receive a response.
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